Notes on environments


The fundamental idea in our operational account of the simply-typed &lamnda;-calculus is substitution. However, in practice, substitution is an inefficient way to implement functional programming languages. These notes will motivate an alternative view, based on the idea of environments, and discuss some historical alternatives to our standard notion of λ-calculus reduction


We use substitution to describe the meaning of variables in the simply-typed λ-calculus. For example, the reduction rule for application is as follows.

Intuitively, we read this rule as saying: "if $e_1$ reduces to $\lambda x. e$, and $e_2$ reduces to $w$, and $e$ with $x$ mapped to $w$ reduces to $v$, then $e_1 \, e_2$ reduces to $v$". To understand what this means, we need some understanding of "$e$ with $x$ mapped to $w$". This is the operation of substitution.

Our first approach to understanding substitution is to define it directly. That is, we give a (recursive) definition of what it means to substitute a value $w$ for a variable $x$ in each possible λ-calculus term. Some terms, such as addition or application, do not manipulate variables directly, and so substitution can be defined simply.

The more interesting cases of substitution are to do with the introduction and use of variables, in lambda and variable terms.

The variable rule says that, if we are replacing $x$ by $w$, then we replace variables if they are $x$ and leave them alone otherwise. The rule for functions is more interesting. It says that, if we are attempting to replace a variable $x$, and we have a function that abstracts over a variable $x$, we stop substituting. Intuitively, this is because the variable $x$ inside the function is a different variable than the variable $x$ which we are replacing. If the function abstracts over a different variable, then we do continue replacing $x$ by $w$ in the body of the function.

(An aside. One conseqeunce of our treatment of variables is that the variable name used in a function expression can be changed at will. That is, a function expression $\backslash y : t . e$ is exactly equivalent to $\backslash z : t . [y \mapsto z]\,e$. This rule is frequently called α-equivalence. Another way to account for the opreation of substitution on function terms is to assume that functions never reuse variables---which we can do safely, because we can always apply α-equivalence to turn a function that does reuse a variable name into one that does not.)

Substitutions provide a simple, complete explanation of the behavior of the λ-calculus, and we will continue to use them formally. However, as an implementation technique, using substitution directly leaves much to be desired. Each substitution operation has to (potentially) traverse the syntax of the entire expression. Consequently, nested substitutions (such as might arise from nested applications, a common pattern in functional programming) result in repeated traversals of the target expression.

From substitutions to environments

Our alternative approach is based on the idea of environments. Rather than apply substitutions immediately when they arise (such as in the application rule), we will maintain an environment mapping variables to values as we perform evaluation. This is appealing from two perspectives. First, it addresses the complexity of λ-calculus evaluation: updating the environment can be done in constant time, and we only need to look up values in the environment at variables. Second, it matches very closely with our idea of typing: just as in typing, we use an environment $\Gamma$ to match variables with types, now in evaluation we will use an environment $H$ to match variables with values.

We start out by defining environments. We define enviroments $H$ to be sequences of mappings from variables to values $x_1 \mapsto v_1, \dots, x_n \mapsto v_n$. As with type environments $\Gamma$, we will extend environments $H$ by writing $H, x \mapsto v$. Finally, we define $H(y)$, the value associated with $y$ in $H$, as the value right-most mapping of $y$. Formally,

Next, we want to define evaluation rules that use the environment. This means we need a new evaluation relation. Where we previously treated evaluation as a two-place relation $e \Eval v$, where our expression $e$ sometimes was itself the result of substitution, we will now use a three-place relation $\HEval H e v$, where $H$ is an environment, $e$ is an expression, and $v$ is a value. Many of our evaluation rules do not use variables, and so adding the environment $H$ is trivial:

The interesting cases are all to do with the handling of variables.

The rule for variables depends on their values in $H$; note that, if $H$ does not contain a binding for $x$, then $H(x)$ is undefined and so there is no $v$ for which you can construct a derivation of $\HEval H x v$. The rule for let adds a new binding to $H$ when evaluating the body.

The function problem

We turn to the evaluation rule for functions. In the substution model, function evaluation was quite simple: we evaluate a term $\backslash x : t \to e$ to the function $\lambda x. e$. However, now things are not so simple. A function term $\backslash x : t \to e$ may itself contain free variables; in the environment model, those variables should be defined by the environment $H$. However, the body of a function is not evaluated at the time it is defined, but at the time that it is used, at which point we may have a very different environment $H'$. For a (somewhat contrived) example, consider the following definition:

let y = 3 in
let f = \ x : Int -> x + y in
let y = 4 in
  f 2 + y

In the substitution model, we start out by substitution 3 for y. Consequently, the body of function f is \x : Int -> x + 3, and the meaning of the entire term is 9. We would like the same to be true in the environment model, but that means we need to be clear that the y in f is not the same y as is visible at the call site.

This might seem like just an issue of variable naming again; for example, in the above code, either y could be changed to another variable, like z, and the result would be unambiguous. However, we can construct more interesting examples in which this does not suffice. Convince yourself that the following example cannot be solved simply by renaming variables.

let f = let y = 3 in
        \x : Int -> x + y in
let y = 4 in
  f 2 + y

To solve this problem, we need to be a little cleverer about the result of evaluting a function term. Instead of evaluating a function term to just the parameter and the body, we need to also keep the environment in which the function was evaluated. This combination of environment and function is called a closure, and the environment is called the captured environment. We will write closures as $\Clos H x e$, denoting a function with parameter $x$, body $e$, and captured environment $H$. We can now state evaluation rules that take closures into account.

The evaluation rule for function terms now captures the environment $H$ and stores it in the resulting closure. Similarly, the evaluation rule for application evaluates the function body (but not, of course, the argument) in the captured environment. Convince yourself that these rules give the expected results for the examples above.

Dynamic scope

Historically, there is another approach to implementing functions. In this approach, rather than capturing the environment when evaluating a function term, function bodies are evaluated in the environment in which they are used. This is called dynamic scope, because the meaning of a variable is determined by the execution of the program rather than by its location in the source. We could write evaluation rules for dynamic scoping as follows.

Most immediately, dynamic scoping breaks the correspondence between our implementation of the λ-calculus and the substitution model; it also breaks the connection bewteen typing and evaluation. Convince yourself that the following two programs are well-typed, but cannot evaluate without errors.

let f = let y = 3 in
        \x : Int -> x + y in
let y = 4 in
  f 2 + y
let f = \x : Int -> \y : Int -> x + y in
  f 1 2

So, it may be confusion why dynamic scoping was ever implemented in the first place. However, there are strange benefits to dynamically scoped languages as well. For example, they provide a way to achieve recursive definitions but without any explicit scope for recursion. Consider the following definition and use of the factorial function:

let fact = \n : Int -> if isz n then 1 else n * fact (n - 1) in
  fact 3

With static scope, this program cannot execute: the body of the function is executed in its captured environment, at which point fact is not defined. However, with dynamic scope, this program executes fine; by the time the body of fact is executed, fact is itself defined. You may wish to convince yourself of this: attempt to derive a value for fact 2 with both static and dynamic scoping.


The elegance of the λ-calculus arises from how remarkably complex behavior can be specified using only very simple formal ideas, and substitution plays a central role in that story. These notes have considered how we can implement substitution in practice, and gives some historical insight on alternative implementations. While we can now see clearly that dynamic scoping is wrong, the correct implementation of static scoping was an open question in functional programming for much of the 1960s and 1970s.